Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington
In May, before most in Washington had even heard of Chapter 5-13, Senator Kit Bond was studying the discharge--and calling for its abolition. "You have 22,000 soldiers who passed through all the tests required to send them to Iraq, and they came back and were diagnosed with a pre-existing condition? It just doesn't compute. We need to fix the system," he says. "They ought not have the 5-13 as an easy way to put these soldiers out." As the system is now, the Senator says, some of the cases he's seen "just scream out to me: 'This person was railroaded.'"
The Republican from Missouri helped put together a coalition of thirty-one senators spanning the political spectrum, from Hillary Clinton to Joseph Lieberman to fellow conservative Elizabeth Dole. In June they wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting that he investigate the 5-13 discharge process. Bond also co-wrote a defense authorization amendment with Senator Barack Obama and others that would put a temporary freeze on all personality disorder discharges. The amendment has been referred to the Armed Services Committee.
The past year has exposed several problems in the way we're treating veterans, says Bond. "And this 5-13 seems to be a major part of the problem."
By July the Senate wasn't the only organization in Washington concerned about personality disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs was worried too. "We wanted to prioritize injured [Iraq War] veterans. We want to provide a seamless transition" from the Army, says a top VA official. But with these personality disorder discharges, "you have people now falling through the cracks." The official, who demanded anonymity because he had not received clearance to speak, says the problem with phony discharges like personality disorder is that they short-circuit the VA's Red Flag system.
The Red Flag system is an informal name for the VA's method of identifying the most wounded soldiers. The agency does this, explains the official, by keeping its eye on the Army's medical board hearings, where wounded soldiers are supposed to go before their discharge. The board evaluates injured soldiers and gives them a disability rating. Under the Red Flag system, those who leave the Army's medical board hearings with a high disability rating are flagged and targeted for immediate medical care.
But soldiers discharged with personality disorder are denied the opportunity to see a medical board and thus don't get a disability rating. As a result, they fly under the VA's radar. Those who need immediate medical care get dumped into the stack of 800,000 cases currently waiting to be processed by the VA. For the VA to function, says the official, the Army has to pass wounded soldiers through its medical boards. Otherwise, the agency is flying blind.
Jon Town knows firsthand the price of that blindness. He submitted an application for VA medical care shortly before leaving the Army. Seven months later he was still waiting for his first doctor's appointment.
Without medical treatment, Town struggled alone with deafness, memory loss, insomnia and a headache that was still raging three years after the rocket attack. The specialist tried to take a few jobs, but each time he was fired after his health proved too much of an issue. His wife, Kristy, had to keep the family of four afloat with her minimum-wage job on the assembly line at Filtech, an oil-filter manufacturer in their hometown of Findlay, Ohio. Soon the family was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. In May, the phone company shut off their service because the Towns couldn't pay their bill.
The media took note. In April came the Nation article, followed by the Law & Order episode, which introduced Town's story to 9 million viewers. When musician Dave Matthews saw the article and began discussing it in concerts, his enraged fans took up a collection for Town, which raised $3,000. The guitarist followed up by posting a petition on his website, urging Congress to hold hearings on personality disorder. Within weeks the petition was signed by 23,000 people.
"There are times when an injustice is so clear, it's not a matter of opinion," says Matthews. "Nobody would argue that what's happening to Jon Town is right. And to think that it's happening over and over again...it's just astounding. It's a crime against these young people that's so profound--and it's happening right now. I had to ask myself, 'Does America think this is OK?'" People won't think it's OK once they learn what's going on, says Matthews. "We can fix this catastrophe. It's just a matter of getting people to know about it."
Soon Nation readers, NBC viewers and Matthews fans were reaching out to Town en masse: e-mails, phone calls, small personal checks. The local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars organized a motorcycle ride to honor his service. A veteran from Boston offered Town his disability pay until the specialist could secure his own.
Strangely enough, Town's big break came not from Matthews, NBC or even Senator Bond but from Lou Wilin, a reporter at the Findlay Courier, Town's hometown paper (circulation 23,000). After reading Town's story in The Nation, Wilin wrote a profile of the soldier, which ran in the newspaper's April 16 edition. The article caught the eye of an admiral in the VA who happens to live a few miles east of Findlay. The admiral flagged Town's case, kicked it to the Cleveland VA, which passed it to the Dayton VA, where case manager Janine Wert was ready to take action. Wert received Town's case the morning of April 19 and had the soldier in her office before the end of lunch. She listened to his story and cried.
"His childhood, high school and military history--none of it supports a personality disorder. When you're a teenager, there are certain things that pop up that are vividly obvious, red flags for personality disorder. Those aren't present in Jon's history," says Wert, a social worker with a master's degree in mental health. Wert says Town's PTSD and TBI symptoms were obvious from their first meeting. She was struck by the absurdity of the Army's diagnosis. "I have never in my life heard of personality disorder causing deafness," says the counselor.
Wert arranged an immediate doctor's appointment for Town and scheduled an evaluation by a VA medical board. On June 11 the VA ruled that Town was in fact wounded in combat. The agency declared him 100 percent disabled.
Town's VA rating guaranteed him disability and medical benefits for the rest of his life. The VA also provided the disability pay that Town should have received in the months following his discharge. On June 25, just weeks after his family's phone had been shut off, the specialist received a check for $20,000.
"I almost started to cry," says Town. "They were ready to repossess everything. And now I knew we weren't going to lose our cars to bankruptcy, that we'd have food on the table for years to come.... There isn't a word for what I was feeling."
The diagnosis was a remarkable victory for the Town family--and a pointed defeat for the Army, which to this day insists that Town was not wounded in combat and that his health problems stem from a personality disorder. He still has not received any of the benefits owed him by the Army.
"This is a scandal," Representative Filner said in May. And members of his VA Committee would be interested in pursuing it, "but right now, they just don't know anything about it." With the uproar about Town, Filner saw an opportunity to change that. On July 12 he announced that his committee would hold a hearing on personality disorder. To do it right, he said, "we definitely want to hear from soldiers."
Filner had a particular soldier in mind.